YESTERDAY, MOJO HEARD seven of what may turn out to be ten or eleven Bob Dylan originals to be released by Columbia Records in April, possibly the week of the 27th in the U.S. and Europe. The album is not yet titled and final track selection, sequence and artwork are still being finalized. Sources confirm what many have already heard: French filmmaker Olivier Dahan, who directed La Vie En Rose, the blood-on-the-tracks biopic of Edith Piaf, asked Dylan to contribute something to My Own Love Song, a road movie starring Forest Whitaker and Renee Zellweger about a wheelchaired singer and pal who travel cross-country to Memphis. Bob offered up Life Is Hard, a gorgeous ballad with a descending melody line that is reminiscent of the Bing Crosbyish, early 20th Century pop that Bob displayed on both "Love And Theft" and Modern Times.
Although the facts remain a mystery, evidently Dylan had more to say, more to write, or simply had accumulated enough songs for a new album. It took him four years to follow 1997's Time Out Of Mind with 2001's "Love And Theft", and five twixt Love... and '06's Modern Times, so no-one expected a new one so quickly. Details are sketchy about precise recording dates and personnel but sources say that Jack Frost (Dylan's nom de studio) produced and the line-up features Bob on guitar and keys as well as his road band and David Hidalgo from Los Lobos on accordion. Other possible contributors have been floated but have not been confirmed.
Your correspondent first heard of the possible existence of an album of new material on Dylan encyclopedist Michael Gray's blog on January 22. The rumor quickly made the rounds of Bobsites, forcing skeptics to point to the alleged April release date as proof that this was an April Fool's joke. As recently as March 10, one naysayer posted on the New Yorker website that guesswork about the album's title was "the strongest evidence there won't be an album." After checking with a friend of Bob's who confirmed the rumor, arrangements were made with the appropriate gatekeepers. Drugged, blindfolded, and forced to switch transportation periodically, I awoke on a tropical island in a bamboo hut, sparsely outfitted with a lone stereo. Here's what I heard:
1) Beyond Here Lies Nothin' - A minor chord mid-tempo rocker. Like all the tracks and like Bob's last two albums, it's got a big, full, raucous, rocking sound, making the case that Jack Frost is indeed Bob Dylan's finest producer since the '60s and '70s. Likewise, his voice packs a punch; not the thin, reedy instrument that occasionally detracts during live sets. He's enunciating the lyrics with a fire and intensity we didn't hear on Modern Times. Hidalgo's soulful squeezebox is omnipresent here - and everywhere else.
2) Life Is Hard - The song that possibly buzzed his muse and encouraged him to write the others. "I need strength to fight that world outside," and "I'm on my guard / Admitting life is hard / Without you baby" are lines that leapt out in a paean to the notion that two are better equipped to weather tragedy than one. A forlorn twinkling mandolin and mournful pedal steel accentuate the deep blue lyrics.
3) My Wife's Hometown - Chicago blues has always been a huge influence on Dylan. From Bringing It All Back Home up through his most recent work, the ghosts of Chess Studios lurk inside the man from Minnesota. This one's reminiscent of Muddy Waters' I Love The Life I Live, I Live The Life I Love. Job loss is referenced (a topical theme, you may have heard), but Bob's black humour is in cheeky abundance: "I just want to say that hell's my wife's hometown" and "I'm pretty sure she'll make me kill someone," Bob sings and then laughs demonically at the end. Man, he's enjoying himself.
4) Forgetful Heart - Lots of tunes in minor keys on this record, including this one. A neat banjo barely audible in the mix and one of The Master's best lines ever: "The door is closed for evermore / If indeed there ever was a door."
5) Shake Shake Mama - More Chi-town chugga-lugga. Some artists retreat to servile reasonableness and bourgeois banality as they get older. Not Bob. He got Las Vegas out of his system at Budokan. "I'm motherless / I'm fatherless / Almost friendless too," he growls and you believe him.
6) I Feel A Change Coming On - Like Spirit On the Water from Modern Times, this one possesses a blithe jaunt and gorgeous melody. As in all his recent work, there are intimations of mortality ("And the last part of the day is already gone") but there's a devil-may-care wistfulness and a frisky sexuality in both lyrics and phrasing. Best lines: "I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver / I'm reading James Joyce / Some people they tell me / I've got the blood of the land in my voice."
7) It's All Good - Propelled by a John Lee Hooker boogie rhythm with a stinging slide guitar, here's Dylan taking on human woes: social, political, personal. He itemizes crimes ranging from "politicians tellin' lies" to environmental illness ("a teacup of water is enough to drown"), urban degradation, murder and adultery and sarcastically and scathingly responds to each in the chorus with that hideous New Age cliché referenced in the title. More proof that Bob never really stopped writing "protest songs".
Other song titles that I didn't hear but have been mentioned elsewhere include If You Ever Go To Houston and This Dream Of You. Yet what I heard offered ample proof of an artist steeped in the past but thoroughly living in the present, cognizant of everything, not afraid to point fingers or laugh at fools or fall in love.
It's a powerful personal work by a man who still thinks for himself in an era of fear, conformity, and dehumanization. That it rocks mightily makes the message even more compelling. Whatever the hell it gets called, it'll be in the running for Best Album Of 2009.
Matthew Smith of Outrageous Cherry & The Volebeats - Detroit musician and producer extraordinaire.
With the release of a new record, Universal Malcontents, I thought it high time to put together a comp for the uninitiated. The songs reflected here, culled from a sizable output over the last fifteen years are nothing short of genius. Having toiled in in the shadows for years, which is a shame, really, as the Motor City quartet’s string of 60's/70's, AM radio, psych/fuzz output has always been consistently good. (That said, I'm still trying to figure out why last year's best-of, Wide Awake in the Spirit World, didn't contain one song from 1999's inspirational Out There in The Dark.) This late in the game, the band could be forgiven for coasting on its considerable talents, but instead Universal Malcontents may be its best record yet. Led by Matthew Smith (who's also a member of The Volebeats) is more in the zone than ever before, whether on the glam-inflected opener, "I Recognized Her", the two minute brilliance of "Anymore", the shimmering psychedelic "Feels Like Shadows” or the sarcastic stomp of “It’s Not Rock N’Roll (And I Don’t Like It).”, Universal Malcontents is Outrageous Cherry’s most engaging record in nearly a decade. These tracks, as well as several from Out There In The Dark, and many others are all represented here.
Pretty Girls Go Insane Where Do I Go When You Dream? Anymore (You're Not) A Nice Girl Saturday Afternoon Easy Come, Uneasy Glow Corruptable I Recognized Her Solid Sound Gangster Why Don't We Talk About Something Else I Wouldn't Treat My Enemies the Way You Treat Yourself Georgie, Don't You Know Togetherness Pale Frail Lovely One Feels Like Shadows What Have You Invented Today? I've Been Obsessed Memory Lord Have Mercy On Me Stay Right Here for a Little While If You Want Me New Creature Stay Happy This Evening Memphis Stereo Trust It's Rock 'N' Roll (And I Don't Like It)